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Modernism revisited

Researchers rethink the São Paulo avant-garde movement's place in the Brazilian cultural scene

Daniel Kondo

During February of 1922, the legendary Week of Modern Art was held at the Municipal Theater of São Paulo. Although the object of study by critics, historians, and researchers in literature for almost a century, the significance of its role in Brazilian cultural history is now being reconsidered. In the literary sphere, recent studies indicate that the Week of Modern Art was part of a process that began at the end of the nineteenth century, involving the work of then relatively unknown authors, writing in various regions of the country and not restricted by the intellectual milieu of São Paulo.

Inspired by the European vanguard, modernism was an artistic movement that sought to break with the aesthetic characteristics considered traditional at the time. In Brazilian literature, the abolition of the versification employed by the Parnassian poets, and the production of texts on national identity that used everyday language, were some of modernism’s most significant guiding principles.

In the national literary historiography, the Week of Modern Art is considered the starting point in the revitalization of Brazilian literature. Under the leadership of Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954), and Menotti Del Picchia (1892–1988), dozens of intellectuals, mainly from São Paulo and Rio, participated in the event, lecturing and reading their texts and poems. They shared a desire to transgress and outdo the themes and forms that permeated the literature that had been produced previously.

Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda, a professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), observes that reviews critical of modernism only gained credibility in the 1990s. “Until the 1980s, especially in the academic scene in São Paulo, the movement was treated as if it were above any critical evaluation,” she says. Arruda, who since 2011 has been developing the study “Trajectories of modernism in Brazil: The 1930s novel and the shadow of the past in the transit of the modern,” believes this happened in part because the creation of the University of São Paulo involved people with connections to the modernist cultural scene. These intellectuals began to reflect on modernism in São Paulo, treating it as an inflection point in Brazilian culture, and promoting the thesis that it played a central role in revitalizing the literary field.

National Library Foundation Collection Research on a journal published in Minas Gerais revealed the ambivalent nature of modernismNational Library Foundation Collection

The growing idea of approaching history from the vantage of everyday life has allowed a new view of modernism, proposes Mônica Pimenta Velloso, historian and researcher at the Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. History has additionally come to be considered from the perspective of culture, and the practices and representations constructed by the different social groups that make up everyday life. “This change influenced the analyses of Brazilian modernism, which began to prioritize urban and regional diversities,” she says.

Velloso is author of the books Modernismo no Rio de Janeiro (Modernism in Rio de Janeiro; KBR, 2015) and História e modernismo (History and modernism; Autêntica, 2010). She considers that this change of perspective allowed scholars of the modernist movement to see that the relationships between the cultural center and the periphery were more complex than previously thought, and that authors considered of minor importance had also contributed significantly to the development of modernism in Brazil.

Velloso notes that the year 1922 was important in establishing collective memory in Brazil, due to the celebrations for the 100-year anniversary of independence. In addition to the Week of Modern Art, Brazil held the International Exhibition, an official event organized in Rio to demonstrate the progress of Brazilian industry to the rest of the world. The event was the subject of criticism from the weekly humor magazines. Unlike the International Exhibition, the “Week of ’22,” as it came to be known, was successful in its ambition to become a historical landmark. The consecrating readings by critics and historians contributed to building up its reputation in the Brazilian cultural imagination.

Daniel KondoArruda recalls that the first critical review of the modernist movement occurred in the 1930s, with the emergence of authors of the social problem novel of the Northeast, including writers such as José Lins do Rego (1901–1957) and Jorge Amado (1912–2001). As a critic, she read these novelists as being representatives of the second-generation modernists, a term which assumes that they had departed from the ideals of the first generation to compose their own narrative universe. However, the leaders of modernism in São Paulo—Mário de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade—perceived that this literature distanced itself from the experimental principles that had characterized the initial instance of the movement in São Paulo. “Oswald de Andrade, for example, came to use the term ‘Buffaloes of the Northeast’ to refer to these authors, alluding to the social denunciation and sober tone of their writing, which differed from that produced by the intellectuals in 1922, more interested in capturing the speed of the metropolis with a transgressive slant,” she says.

Recent research seeks to contradict readings that position the literature of the 1930s as a repercussion to São Paulo modernism. This proposition is corroborated by Velloso, indicating that Manaus, Belém, and Recife had access to European avant-garde culture without mediation by São Paulo or Rio. “Today we know that Brazilian modernism results from a complex amalgam involving different traditions and rereadings, combining localism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism.” In her view, the Week of ’22 was not the only watershed moment for this process of revival: “I identify some of these voices in the intellectuals of the previous generation, among them Silvio Romero [1851–1914] and Euclides da Cunha [1866–1909].” Velloso recalls that throughout his career Romero was creating a map of Brazilian culture, and creating research tools in order to study it. “His project of organizing and mapping the national culture precedes and dialogues with the history of what are considered pioneering studies that Mário de Andrade had conducted on Brazilian folklore, beginning in the 1930s,” she explains. In addition, she believes that Euclides da Cunha had already sought to create symbols of national identity by drawing on the sertanejo (country/folk) imagination in his narratives. “An intellectual generation that was moved by a modernist sensibility already existed before the twentieth century,” she argues.

In a recently completed research project, Humberto Hermenegildo de Araújo, a retired professor in the Department of Literature at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), identifies the existence of a push toward literary revival in the region prior to the Week of ’22. As an example, he recalls that the Manifesto del Futurismo by the Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), which spread the avant-garde European aesthetic ideas that inspired the São Paulo modernist movement, was first translated and published in the state of Rio Grande do Norte in 1909. In addition, Araújo notes that the first commercial flights from Europe to South America arrived in Natal, on Brazil’s northern tip. This mobilized the city’s poets, such as Jorge Fernandes (1887–1953) to write verses about airplanes and the progress of civilization, themes that also permeated the poetics of first-generation modernists. “There was an interest in the new throughout Brazil. At that time, the country welcomed extraliterary stimuli and identified with modernity, with the appreciation of machines, the urban world, and the idea of ​​progress,” says Araújo.

Daniel KondoTake the case of the only book of poetry published by Jorge Fernandes, reviewed by Antônio de Alcântara Machado (1901–1935), an important writer and literary critic of the era. Araújo explains that, while influenced by Natal’s traditional cultural elements, Fernandes’s verses also contained the avant-garde aspects of visual poetry, which would only see further development in Brazil by poets of the concrete movement in the 1950s. Although an active participant in Brazil’s intellectual life, having received Manuel Bandeira (1886–1968) and Mário de Andrade when they were in the Northeast, and published poems in the Revista de Antropofagia (Anthropophagy journal), published in São Paulo in the late 1920s, Fernandes was forgotten until the mid-1970s. Then his work was revisited by researchers dedicated to unveiling literary movements beyond the Rio–São Paulo axis. “Regional cultures reverberated in the modernism of São Paulo, and recent research shows how places that were considered peripheral produced literary intelligence that was absorbed by the urban centers,” emphasizes Araújo. In studies that relativize the centrality of São Paulo intellectuals in the process of literary revival, Araújo cites the case of Luís da Câmara Cascudo (1898–1986), a historian and folklorist from Natal, the capital city of Rio Grande do Norte. Cascudo was the principal promoter of modernism in his state, and in a similar manner he helped to disseminate his own regional culture among authors from São Paulo. Araújo observes that when Mário de Andrade embarked on his ethnographic travels around Brazil during the late 1920s, Cascudo received him and acted as his guide through Rio Grande do Norte. The visits allowed him to broaden the São Paulo writer’s vision of Brazil, which had until then been centered chiefly on the urban areas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Macunaíma, published by Mário de Andrade in 1928, was written after these trips.

For Araújo, current research that seeks to reveal authors, works, or unknown aspects of modernism gives precedence to the study of documents that go beyond the literary text, such as journals, correspondence, and regional periodicals. Among these was Leite Criôlo (Creole milk), a journal which circulated in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, in 1929. In 2012, Miguel de Ávila Duarte, who holds a PhD in literary studies from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), participated in the process of editing a book which contains nineteen facsimile editions of this periodical. According to Duarte, in the late 1920s Leite Criôlo saw significant participation within the network of modernist journals. “What proves this is that several poems by São Paulo poet Raul Bopp [1898–1984] were published in the Minas Gerais periodical, under the pseudonym Jacop Pim Pim, alongside poetry by authors from other states, such as Pará and Paraná.” Duarte further explains that Leite Criôlo is mentioned repeatedly in the Revista de Antropofagia, a publication that became one of the most widely known in the history of the movement. “Despite its importance at the beginning of modernism, Leite Criôlo was no longer considered significant in the ensuing decades, because it didn’t fit into the narrative that placed the São Paulo group as central to the revitalization of Brazilian literature,” he adds.

The Minas Gerais researcher recalls that after the critical review done between 1930 and 1940 by the very authors who had participated in the Week of ’22, São Paulo modernism only returned to being the object of academic studies in the 1950s, when in-depth analyses of works such as Macunaíma emerged. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Week of ’22, São Paulo modernism consolidated its hegemonic position in modernist historiography with the edition of the complete works and facsimile publications of journals such as Klaxon, which circulated in São Paulo in 1922 and 1923.

Peripheral regions produced literary intelligence that was absorbed by urban cultural centers

In her essay “Estéticas da ruptura” (Rupture aesthetics), Eneida Maria de Souza, a professor of literary theory at UFMG, argues that the cult of novelty and the impulse to break with previous movements indelibly marked the critical discourse in the analysis of literary works. “The ‘dictatorship of the new’ represented a trend common to the Brazilian avant-garde theories that, inspired by the Europeans, wanted the cultural sphere to accompany the modernizing transformations of technology and the industrial revolution,” Souza writes. As a result, works that were on the margins of this “rupture aesthetic” were less recognized in the critical discourse, which began to value works aligned with the idea of the ​​vanguard, to the detriment of literature with aesthetic characteristics associated with earlier movements, such as Parnassianism.

The current dynamic of reappraising literary modernism arises from the relationship it establishes with Brazil’s process of modernization as a whole, in Souza’s estimation. “Our modernization is currently at a crossroads. The idea that society is on a path of constant progress has been called into question,” she observes. “These questions have made us rethink our ideal of modernity and the way modernism has been treated by literary historiography.”

Argentine avant-garde
The avant-garde movement in São Paulo is not the only one undergoing a process of critical review. In a recently published book, sociologist Sérgio Miceli, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), conducted a critical analysis of the most renowned writers of the Argentine avant-garde movement. In Sonhos da periferia: Inteligência argentina e mecenato privado (Dreams from the periphery: Argentine intellect and private patronage), the researcher focuses on the intellectual activity that occurred around the journal Sur (South). Launched in 1931, the publication included writer Victoria Ocampo (1890–1979) as one of its main patrons and Jorge Luís Borges (1899–1986) as its most celebrated author.

Wikimedia Commons Intellectuals of Sur journal: the icons of avant-garde Argentine literature gained international reputationsWikimedia Commons

Miceli’s book analyzes the history of the publication from two viewpoints. In the first, he reconstructs the social and political panorama in which the journal was created, and reflects on the process of how certain intellectuals were ordained as icons of Argentine avant-garde literature. One of the effects of this process, according to the researcher, was initially to conceal the work of writers and poets who came from less affluent social classes, among them Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938) and Horacio Quiroga (1878–1937). “These writers were successful in having their works published in the mainstream press, and their exclusion from Sur’s milieu had nothing to do with a lack of literary quality. It was the social divide that motivated their rejection,” he says. In Miceli’s view, recent studies on Argentine literary historiography were able to show the significant role played by these authors, who have since received critical recognition.

The second viewpoint for Miceli’s analysis entails a comparison with the Brazilian social novel of the 1930s. For him, the literary activities of the writers gathered together by Sur led to Buenos Aires becoming the cultural epicenter of the Hispanic world. This occurred because of the language, among other reasons. Published in Spanish, these intellectuals’ books circulated throughout the different countries of Latin America and Spain. Miceli explains that the themes dealt with in their works had a universal character, attracting the attention of readers of various nationalities. Unlike the Sur group, the Brazilian writers of the social novel of the 1930s based their narratives on creating autobiographical sagas, blending personal stories with the nation’s social history.

In Miceli’s view, such literature was permeated by local themes, limiting foreign readers’ interest in the books. “Graciliano Ramos converts his reality into fictional matter, while Borges satirizes stereotypes related to the national identity,” he notes. Thus, the Argentine author’s literature distances itself from what would become the Brazilian “realist paradigm,” and he “was elevated to the podium of the global, cosmopolitan writer capable of presenting the universe of experience representative of an alleged human condition.” The researcher states that, while authors like Borges gained international reputations, Brazilian writers were confined to the domestic scene. Miceli points out that Victoria Ocampo and other female intellectuals in Sur’s orbit were protagonists in their cultural scene, another circumstance without parallel in Brazil. “In Brazilian modernism, what few female writers there were occupied a marginal position in the literary scene, as was the case of Patrícia Galvão (who wrote under the pseudonym “Pagu”), whose work was only recognized after her death,” he adds.

Miceli points to the shared references to the European vanguard as points in common between the literary dynamics of the two countries, as well as to a kind of tidal motion in the process of recognizing writers and poets, which fluctuates to the extent that studies on lesser-known intellectuals gain ground. “Here, as there, the literary consecration of authors has oscillated due to circumstances that don’t necessarily hew closely to the quality of their works,” he concludes.

Scientific article
ARRUDA, M. A. N. El concepto de formación en tiempos críticos: Esbozo de reflexión. Sociológica. Vol. 90, pp. 47–68. 2016.